Suzanne Gates, Surviving and Thriving Without a Car

Suzanne Gates, on the front page of the Guelph Tribune, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Ned Bekavac

Suzanne Gates, on the front page of the Guelph Tribune, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Ned Bekavac

Suzanne is a founding member of Guelph Coalition for Active Transportation.  She is also a car free, year round cyclist.  How has she managed, to not just survive, but actually thrive without a car?
While certainly not everyone can forgo car ownership, this committed soul has demonstrated that it can be possible.
 Suzanne is a retired teacher who volunteers at the YMCA, the organic garden at the University of  Guelph,  the Julien Project at St. Ignatius, and helps young children with their reading in a grade one class.  She has many other interests, including gardening, hiking and canoeing.
I asked her why she sold her car many years ago.  She said that when she lived in Manitoba seven years ago, she didn’t need a car. The aboriginal community in which she taught was small enough to make it easy to get around by bike.  When she moved to Guelph, she decided not to purchase a car because she had gotten so used to living without one.
What were her prime motivators for going car free?  Many of her answers were not surprising…good health, not wanting to pollute, saving money, being closer to nature, etc.   She has always been an advocate for active transportation.   I was, however, surprised to hear that, in her case, being car free enhanced her quality of life.
Most people would envision that going without a car would force them to be less social than they would like.  They might worry that they would opt to stay home rather than biking or taking the bus somewhere, because of the time and trouble involved.  In Suzanne’s case, however, cycling all over Guelph has allowed her the opportunity to meet new people who have similar interests to her own, to the point where cycling has actually expanded her social circle. 
As the above photo suggests, Suzanne doesn’t even let winter weather deter her from cycling. In both Northern Manitoba and in Guelph, she rides her bike all winter long.  She has a special beater bike with studded tires for snowy and icy conditions. The winter conditions barely even slow her down.  She even uses the bike to go to Waterdown on a regular basis to meet one of her friends.
I asked Suzanne what she misses most about not having a car.  She said that she misses going to interesting places that are a longer distance than what bike travel allows.  However, being ever resourceful, Suzanne has found ways to offset these disadvantages.  She uses the bus, train, plane, and is not afraid to carpool.  She makes a point of paying her share of gas and has enjoyed some great conversations when sharing the drive instead of everyone going to the same place in their own car.
Suzanne’s adventurous spirit and positive outlook are contagious.  I wonder if she has been that way all of her life, or if she has become happier since she has gained the health and financial freedom that have come from relying on two wheels instead of four.

Cycling in Guelph with Small Children

Profile of Richelle and daughter Hunter, 3 1/2, everyday cyclists
Richelle and daughter Hunter, 3, preparing for bike ride
Why is riding a bike important to you?

I’ve been riding my whole life and it is the easiest way to commute. It’s great exercise, it keeps me in shape and it’s affordable because it’s free. Simply put, I love riding.  There’s something magical about being lost in your own little world and feeling alive when you’re on  your bike.

You can wake up on a Monday morning feeling completely wiped out, but once you’re on the bike it changes your perspective  and suddenly you’re energized.
How has it changed your life and your relationship with your community?
Riding with my daughter is a relatively new practice for me. We moved to Guelph last winter and I really felt marooned; I was new to the city, we live in the North end where sidewalks just disappear – I couldn’t get to anything without some difficulty.

When we got the trailer in the spring, everything changed. Hunter took to it instantly and after a couple rides together, we were able to start exploring the city and getting to know our community.

What I like about bike riding is that we aren’t bound by a schedule. We don’t have to worry about transit tickets or putting the cheapest gas in a car; we just go. We can explore Guelph, coming and going from one place to another on our own time, without worrying about when we have to pack up to get to where we are going.

Where do you go on the bike?

Everywhere.  I take Hunter to the West End Community Centre, despite the hill.  I take her to the University to visit my husband, to skate at Market Square in the winter or the wading pool in the summer, Riverside Park…..  We even grocery shop with the bike.   

When do you use the car?
As soon as I become licensed, I will be using our van for long distance business travel; I am a photographer and artist and can only get to what I want to shoot easily by car.

What is the hardest thing about using the bike for transportation?
Weather.  Bad weather.  I find the days with heavy winds the worst!  The cold is ok, because you can dress for it; but the wind is brutal, especially with the weight and wind resistance created by the trailer.

Were you fearful about bike riding in Guelph?

I wasn’t worried about cycling in Guelph because I grew up cycling in Toronto. I feel really confident here.  When we were in Toronto, my husband was uncomfortable with the idea of me cycling with our daughter; but here, it’s paradise. Other than the weeks of the transit strike last summer, the roads here are clear of traffic and more often than not, empty. 

What factors do you see determining whether these folks remain committed drivers or to give bikes a try?

It’s easy to get into a vehicle. It’s contained, temperature controlled, it carries all kinds of stuff and requires little effort to use. I think having the equipment to ride; lights, helmets, a flag and when transporting kids, a well constructed trailer and ultimately the desire to ride, not just commute are the two deciding factors.

How did you come to your current bike set-up? How does it work?

I have a hybrid city bike and more recently I acquired a trail bike for riding in the snow for me and a single seat MEC trailer that is a pretty sweet ride for my daughter. The trailer is waterproof, it has a UV screen for good weather riding, windows for her to look out and a small trunk area for our stuff.

How would you respond to people who feel a car is just safer?

There are bad cyclists and bad drivers. A vehicle doesn’t make you safe, it’s all on the operator of the vehicle, be it a bike or a car.

What needs to happen in Canada to make the culture, and eventually the roads, more bike friendly?
The way to normalize cycling is to make room for cyclists on the road.  I love what the Dutch have, with their separated bike lanes.

But, cyclists too, have to do their part and follow the rules of the road. Ultimately, if we make room for each other, it will get easier.

Describe your commute.

As self-employed, stay at home mom, I don’t have a regular route. I prefer to take the TransCanada trail to get downtown and beyond. I only have to take Speedvale for a couple minutes to just East of Woolwich to get on it.  

When we ride to the West End Community Centre we take Dawson to Willow and then zigzag the side streets to Paisley Road.  I’m not crazy about crossing over the Hanlon, it’s a bit sketchy crossing the highway with my daughter. I try to stay off the busy roads when I have my daughter in tow. If I’m on my own, I go where curiosity takes me.

What is the worst part of your commute?

The enormous hill in the middle of the city on a hot day is the worst part of getting to the pool.  I’m also not fond of the Gordon Street hill either; but I tell myself, I can do it in one go and persevere to get us to the top!

What infrastructure change would make your commute better?

Bike lanes.  Bike lanes tell drivers where I am going to be and where they are going to be. If I was given my preference, I’d go with separated lanes.

How did you come to transport your child by bike?

I have always commuted by bike and as an until-recently-non-driver, there has been no other way for me to get around. It was easy for me to add a the trailer to my bike until such time my daughter can ride by herself.

And I loathe being held hostage to a transit schedule. Transit is tough to schedule around in Guelph. It’s just much easier to get around on a bike. I have control over my time and the freedom to enjoy it.

What do you think you and your daughter get out of riding as a family? How does it affect the emotional tone of your time together?

My daughter absolutely loves riding in the trailer. It’s a low stress way of getting around.  I think she finds it meditative.  When we’re moving quickly, there is a vibration in the trailer that I think might simulate what it might be like to travel in a womb.  
I sprained my foot this past summer.  So there were couple of weeks when we couldn’t ride and it was hard on her. We each have our alone time when we  bike and I think she missed it as much as I did.  I noticed a big difference when we had to use transit to get around, so I adjusted my bike and rode with my aircast!  

What is challenging about riding with kids?
Nothing. Bike trailers are designed for safety.
Even when we go on a bike ride together as a family, and she  insists on riding her bike instead of in the trailer, it is still fun.  We just take our time because, it’s our time to be together.
6)Tell a story or two about special moments (funny, exciting, blissful, enlightening, frightening–somehow moving) related to riding with your kids.

We bought Hunter her first bike last summer for her birthday. And although she asked for the bike, had tried a couple out in the bike shops and loved them there, she found it terrifying to even sit on the hers when it arrived.
It was so disappointing. We had done a ton of research and ordered her a brand new, lightweight, balance bike in the requested pink with basket and she wanted nothing to do with it!

But my husband got her on it a few weeks later and within a couple days of that she insisted she and I both ride our bikes to go to Riverside Park! So we did.
And it was amazing to see her confidently ride on the sidewalk, the dirt road that leads up to and winds around the Woodlawn Memorial Park maintenance building and over the tracks to the cemetery. I forgot she was only 3 and on her first big ride and I think she did too. As we descended the small sloped hill into the cemetery, she started going too fast, lost control of her bike and flew over the handle bars.
I was on my bike and couldn’t stop or catch her. It was awful. She had a road rash on her hands and knees and obviously didn’t want to ride anymore. And because we were riding together, I didn’t have the trailer to take her home or even bike locks to leave our bikes behind.
A couple lovely women who work at Woodlawn Memorial Park arrived a few minutes later with bandages and Polysporin. (They were amazing; and my daughter reminds me of their kindness and bandages every time we pass through the park). After a big pep talk with Hunter that included a demonstration that I couldn’t carry her, her bike and mine, we started walking home with her bike precariously balanced in my crate.
I was so sure while we were walking slowly home that she was off riding for the rest of the summer. But she surprised me. I think it was on the last block that she decided to get back on the bike and ride home because it was “faster than walking.” she said.

Have you ever felt judged by those who think you are irresponsible for transporting your kids by bike?


What do you suppose your daughter has learned from this part of your lifestyle?

First, a love of cycling. Hunter wants to be just like me and ride her bike.  Right now she rides a balance bike, but has told me many times she wants a pedal bike that has a basket just like mine to get around.

Second, an ingrained commitment to healthy living.  People have been commuting on bicycles forever.  I’ve always gotten around by bike, I’ve been doing it since I was probably 4 or 5 it’s a great way to stay in shape.  As she gets older and can ride independent of me, cycling will be a normal part of her life and she’ll be stronger and healthier because she rides.

Thirdly, that cycling gives you freedom. We live in a car culture community, with limited transit options. Kids can’t start driving independently until they are 18. Cycling changes that. You can choose your destination and how you will get there.

And lastly, because we ride we get out, a lot. We do experienced based activities together;  skating, swimming, going to a park etc. and we use the bike to get there. I think Hunter sees it as a normal way to get around, not just weekend activity at the park. 

What bit of advice would you like to share with new bike commuters? 
Get a comfortable ride.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money but make sure you’re comfortable and get a crate or a basket for your bag, purse, purchases etc.